When teens attend a school with a prayer room and read the Bible in class, they’re more likely to keep going to church, pray and tithe when they move out of the house, suggests a new report by Cardus, a Christian social policy think-tank.
“It’s tempting to believe the only place where faithful nation happens is in church, youth group or at home,” says Dr. Beth Green, education program director at the Hamilton-based not-for-profit. “It’s still really difficult to get the message across that school matters.”
Since 2011, Cardus has partnered with the University of Notre Dame to produce the biennial Cardus education survey, comparing about 2,000 graduates of independent, mainly Christian, schools with public school graduates in Canada and the United States.
The most recent report to mine the data, Walking the Path: The Religious Lives of Young Adults in North America, shines light on the post-graduation faith practices of about 450 Protestant evangelical high school attendees.
When stacked up against the public school sector, Protestant evangelical high schools churn out young adults with a deeper connection to God and more regular spiritual practice, according to the report, which controls for socio-economic status and parents’ religion.
Into adulthood, graduates of Protestant evangelical high schools attend church, participate in congregational leadership, tithe, pray and read the Bible more regularly than their public school counterparts. They’re more likely to believe Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation and make moral decisions using Scripture.
Protestant evangelical school grads also have more deep-seated beliefs about God’s role in their lives, experiencing less doubt, feeling their job fulfills God’s calling, and believing everything is part of God’s plan.
School shapes faith
But the report’s bread and butter is an analysis of the complex, interconnected life choices that reinforce the faith shaped in high school over the long-term.
While Christian schools encourage religious practices, Notre Dame researchers also identify an indirect effect: By channeling students toward marriage, family and religious post-secondary institutions, Protestant evangelical high schools create opportunities that further develop and strengthen faith.
“For Christians who pay attention to the kinds of habits that move us towards what we think the kingdom of God should look like, this is really significant,” Green told Christian Courier, adding there was a need for research on the relationship between school, home and church, especially with falling church attendance in Canada. “We know these pathways are important, but it looks like fewer people are walking them. What’s that going to mean for the health of our church life in the next generation?”
The upside of Christian schooling may not be lost on Canadians.
Six-in-ten Canadians say faith-based schools should receive at least some public money, according to an Angus Reid Institute survey released in mid-December.
Part of Cardus’ Faith in Canada 150 program, the survey found 31 percent of respondents felt taxpayer dollars for faith-based schools should be on equal footing with public schools, with a further 30 percent supporting partial funding.
Green isn’t surprised. With publicly-funded Catholic school boards in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, funding a faith option isn’t a foreign concept.
“There aren’t two camps of people – the militant atheists on one side and the fundamentally religious people on the other. There is a really big messy middle and a lot of people say religion is part of the fabric of social life,” she says.
Green, a former high school history teacher, says more choice improves education outcomes.
With independent school enrolment growing in nine of 10 provinces between 2000 and 2015 according to the Fraser Institute, policymakers may soon begin to take note, she says. “There is evidence that parents are voting with their feet. Chinks are appearing in the armour.”
Church leaders may envision more bums in the pews, but Green sees Christian school benefits in missional terms.
“Sometimes we get excited about what this means for the church, but the point is to reflect the Lord Jesus and be a signpost to the kingdom of God. That’s something we know helps build our culture and its significance for the world beyond the school gates.”
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